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Rise Up: Organizing for Racial Justice and Worker Power

Article published:
Workers marching behind a banner that says "Fight for 15 and a Union"

We’ve hit a social movement trifecta: a racial justice uprising and pandemic in an election year where everything is on the line.

Books Discussed:

McAlevey, Jane. A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy. Ecco Press, 2020.

Greenhouse, Steven. Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor. Random House, 2019.

Folks, we have hit the social movement trifecta: a racial justice uprising and pandemic in an election year where everything is on the line under an increasingly authoritarian president. This is creating a real opening for structural change, one we have not seen in generations.

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The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Tony McDade (and too many more to name here) have exposed the deep pains of the intertwined relationship between race and class in the United States as never before. Violent and racist police forces, the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has on our Black and Brown communities, the mass unemployment of tens of millions of workers, and the horrific treatment of migrants, asylum seekers and their children, are all now in plain view to the whole world, and create a perfect storm of shame.

The prospect of four more years under a white supremacist and fascist president, Donald Trump, raises the stakes of November’s general election to an almost unbearable degree.

Will the Right seize the day and consolidate power, or will the Left rise to the moment and finally build a multiracial, working-class movement strong enough to take on the root causes of structural oppression and corporate power?

Wake-up call from Jane McAlevey

Let’s start with a wake-up call. In A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy (2020), Jane McAlevey — labor thinker and strategist with twenty-five years of labor organizing under her belt — gets straight to the point:

“Just as any honest history of the United States begins with genocide against its indigenous people, the real history of what became contemporary union busting starts with slavery. Both slavery and union busting are uniquely American in violence, in virulence, and in their existence as fully legally sanctioned. It’s indisputable that from the time of colonization up to the Civil War, the largest workforces in the United States were slaves. They had no rights, no wages, and lived under an official regime of terror.”

While A Collective Bargain focuses on the present and future of worker organizing, McAlevey grounds readers with her analysis of labor’s rise and fall in the United States:

“In the first several years after Roosevelt was sworn into office in 1933, he faced not only marches and other unrest among the unemployed, but also strikes by millions of workers who still had jobs…The strikes were creating a crisis for employers and government alike…The result was sweeping, pro-working-class change.”

She then points to the second wave of strikes among public-sector workers that followed the Civil Rights movement.

McAlevey is careful to note which part of the labor movement brought a commitment to justice to worker organizing: the left. It is they, she says, who “provided the winning strategy: that hyper-greedy employers could be overcome only by uniting the skilled and the unskilled into one organization. In the core industries of the CIO, large factories including auto and steel, this meant uniting whites, blacks, native, and immigrants, as well as women, not just white men.”

The great compression

Steven Greenhouse, in Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor (2019), echoes this analysis, noting that by the end of World War II, “Millions of blacks, farmworkers, and domestic workers were left behind and stuck on the bottom. The rising tide had missed their boats. Nonetheless, thanks to unions lifting millions of workers in the bottom half, it was an era known as the Great Compression, in which income inequality narrowed and the poorest fifth of households had their income increase by 42 percent, and the richest fifth by just 8 percent.”

In this era, which lasted into the 1970s, worker organizing had forced corporations and the wealthy to share the fruits of labor more equally with workers. But underneath this patina of equality, the decisions by corporations and whites about who is “in” and who is “out” of the economy through the narrative of the “American Dream” maintained white supremacy, a phenomenon which deserves more critical attention from Greenhouse and McAlevey.

Fast forward to today. Tens of millions of workers are now unemployed during a health crisis which has devastating racial impacts. White supremacy has been exposed — most pointedly to whites as everyone else has long experienced the strategic use of racism by the Right. But it’s not in the person of a distant and easily caricatured uber-racist like Birmingham Police Chief Bull Connor, who in 1963 ordered police to set their dogs and firehoses on Black children on national TV. This time, it’s your local police department, showing the power of institutional and structural racism with every beating, killing, and gassing of a Black Lives Matter protest near you.

Until now, the corporate-conservative Radical Right has been winning because they took the fight for power as seriously as they did their fight for profits. Lewis Powell Jr.’s memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1971 did not spawn the right-wing takeover of American democracy as much as it crystallized the choice for white wealthy men who wanted to stay on top.

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Strategic racism

Of the corporate Right’s many strategies to take power – deregulation, privatization, money in politics, and corporate power – two stand out for their brutality: the strategic use of racism and attacks on workers, people of color, and immigrants. Applied to workers, McAlevey describes how “Unions’ track record of redistributing power — and therefore wealth — and changing how workplaces are governed is what led to a war waged against them by the business class.” She notes how employers began another major offensive against workers in the early 1970s, “increasing tenfold the number of union-busting firms and weaponizing trade and “globalization” — taking direct aim at the 56 percent unionization rate in American factories.”

McAlevey shares the story of the Koch brothers, who led a direct attack on unions through state right-to-work laws, as a path to power for extractive corporations like their own: “The two Koch brothers, whose net wealth exceeds $50 billion each, set out to destroy the labor movement so they could keep destroying the planet — making money off it — free from regulation.”

The high-profile attack on worker power in Wisconsin is a case study for this strategy. Greenhouse describes how “Grover Norquist, the anti-tax crusader, said that as a result of Act 10, 135,000 government workers in Wisconsin stopped paying union dues. He celebrated that this had cut union revenues by an estimated $135 million a year. Noting that Republican governors in Kentucky and Missouri hoped to enact similar legislation, Norquist predicted, ‘If Act 10 is enacted in a dozen more states, the modern Democratic Party will cease to be a competitive power in American politics. It’s that big a deal.’” A bigly one even.

Greenhouse continues, “A recent academic study suggested that antiunion right-to-work laws generated the winning margin for Trump in Wisconsin and Michigan. That study found that such laws reduce the Democratic share in presidential elections by 3.5 percentage points in states with such laws. That’s far more than Trump’s winning margin in Michigan (0.2 percent) and Wisconsin (0.8 percent).”

McAlevey brings this point home:

“The academic research backs up what those of us in the trenches have known for decades: right-wing corporate leaders understood the power-structure analysis of the United States far better than liberals, social do-gooders, and the Democratic Party. To take down government regulation, control the electoral system, and destroy the earth with impunity, they had to first destroy the most important corporate power-balancing force this country ever had: unions.”

Race and worker power

Let’s talk about race and worker power before we go any further. McAlevey says that “workers have just one choice: to reconcile differences of race, ethnicity, and gender, and create effective, unbreakable class solidarity through building the best kind of unions: democratic, bottom-up, with the power to force the billionaire class to share.”

It was labor’s left that did the most early work to build mutiracial worker power. “It was only after Communist organizers — some of the nation’s most effective organizers — began unionizing farmworkers in the 1930s and led several strikes, which the growers and police crushed, that the AFL began organizing Latino farmworkers, albeit halfheartedly,” describes Greenhouse. He continues, “The CIO, however, with its vision of wall-to-wall unionizing, eagerly organized Hispanic as well as black and Asian American workers.”

Labor’s mixed history on race has undermined its power, a self-inflicted wound that workers can’t afford. “The very unions that did address structural racism,” continues McAlevey, “were attacked by elite power racists using other structures — the Cold War, Congress and the Taft–Hartley Act — to eradicate leaders who understood unions as a social force for ending discrimination.”

The strategic use of racism by the corporate-conservative Radical Right trumps class politics for many white workers. Greenhouse notes that, “several academic studies concluded that Trump won over many white working-class males not because of their economic anxiety but because they feared a decline in social status, that they were losing their privileged positions.” These white working-class men have increasingly taken their resentment to the ballot box, in a political arc that started building more coherently with Barry Goldwater, traveling through Wallace, Nixon, Reagan, Bush and now Trump.

From the stories and analysis in A Collective Bargain and Beaten Down, Worked Up, we can glean several critical ideas on how we might build a multiracial working class that can make structural changes to racial capitalism.

Invest in strike-ready unionism

McAlevey believes that strikes can break down racism and build the mutiracial working class solidarity we need: “Strikes, and good union campaigns to win big on issues, are the best political education because they unite all kinds of different people, encouraging and enabling people to get beyond the self-segregation and prejudices people hold about one another (and that antisocial media reinforce).”

Central to A Collective Bargain is the idea of “whole worker” organizing: building worker power not just through worksite organizing, but also through workers’ web of family, community, faith, and other relationships. Worker-led strike-ready unions that conduct whole worker organizing are the secret sauce for structural change according to McAlevey. “The strikes that work the best and win the most are the ones in which at least 90 percent of all the workers walk out, having first forged unity among themselves and with their broader community,” she explains, “To gain the trust and support of those whose lives may be affected, smart unions work diligently to erase the line separating the workplace from society.”

While the 1936 sit-down strikes at the General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan served as an inflection point for a wave of worker organizing and additional strikes, it was also the birthplace of labor peace agreements and the complacency that McAlevey criticizes. Greenhouse writes, “In the years after the Treaty of Detroit, some scholars talked of the emergence of an unofficial “social contract” in which corporations, seeking stability and labor peace, shared their increased prosperity, profits, and productivity as never before..”

Greenhouse links this moment with Ronald Reagan breaking the PATCO strike and the union, quoting Joseph McCartin, the labor historian, “Reagan’s breaking of the PATCO strike more than any other act of his presidency…announced the dawn of a conservative era. It was among private-sector union workers that the influence of the controllers’ strike proved enduringly devastating, for PATCO’s destruction marked the beginning of the end of one of organized labor’s most reliable weapons, the strike.”

Need for fire in the belly

Greenhouse and McAlevey agree that today’s labor movement has largely lost the fire in its belly. Greenhouse says that, “Instead of remaining the organize-the-unorganized, fight-like-hell unions of old, many unions embraced a small-bore, bureaucratic approach that focused on handling grievances or getting an additional quarter-percent raise. Those matters are important, but if unions are to remain effective champions of workers, it’s vital that they not lose their fight and fire or their broader social vision.” To illustrate this point, Greenhouse tells the story of a leader in the West Virginia teacher strikes who “wishes the teachers had demanded a larger raise, tied to a rollback of the tax cuts for fracking.”

McAlevey points to the building blocks of strike-ready unionism and whole worker organizing as critical to rebuilding worker power:

“The methods are leader identification and structure tests, and the principles are democracy and participation. Leadership identification is grounded in the belief that natural leaders already exist among workers, long before organizers or activists get involved…Structure tests are mini-campaigns designed to help assess the level of worker participation by work area, be it a unit in a hospital or a shift at a fast-food restaurant…Structure tests are always done by hand and face-to-face, not using online tools, because, in addition to assessing the capacity of workers to get their coworkers to do something, they also help build solidarity because they force workers to engage in face-to-face conversations.”

Bargain for the common good

Among the best emerging strategies for whole worker organizing is “bargaining for the common good.” Greenhouse shares the riveting story of the St. Paul Teachers Federation strike authorization and contract bargaining in 2013, and how they “forged a teacher-parent coalition that has turned the St. Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT) into a model of what a farsighted teachers’ union can demand and win: not just higher pay, but smaller class sizes, pre-K for all four-year-olds, and more music teachers, librarians, social workers, and nurses.”

Greenhouse continues, “One day, [SPFT President Mary Cathryn] Ricker had an epiphany – there’s no limit, except your imagination, on what can be put into a contract to improve the schools. To that, she added a corollary: “There is nothing our contract negotiations can’t try when it comes to the common good.”

So the SPFT demanded that the school district join them in pressuring big Minnesota based corporations like Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank to make voluntary contributions toward school funding, and to lobby with labor and allies at the state level for more school funding. “The SPFT teamed up with other progressive groups, including TakeAction Minnesota, the SEIU, MN350 (an environmental group), and CTUL (a Twin Cities workers center) to picket those corporations,” describes Greenhouse.

He continues, “To apply more pressure, the SPFT formed so-called Tiger teams (Tiger is an acronym for “Teaching and Inquiring about Greed, Equity, and Racism”). To create these teams of activists, the union gives teachers, students, parents, and other community members a crash course in populist economics, teaching them about income inequality, CEO salaries, how Minnesota has cut corporate taxes, and how school funding has suffered.”

Los Angeles teachers strike

McAlevey tells the story of the Los Angeles teacher strike in early 2019 and their common good bargaining, noting that, “Lost in the press coverage during the strike—which focused on wages, the least important issue to teachers in this strike—was that the strike was about the future of public education.”

There is a difference, however, in the vision and goals that Greenhouse sees for what labor could champion, and what McAlevey knows is possible. Greenhouse runs through a litany of big-ticket victories that would lead to a “more balanced economy” such as “universal health coverage, free community college, free public universities, more and better apprenticeships, paid parental leave, a paid vacation law, more generous Social Security benefits, a fairer tax system, and vastly expanded infrastructure and green jobs programs that create hundreds of thousands of good jobs. A workers’ movement should also fight for affordable housing, first-class public schools, excellent public transportation, and clean air and water.”

But then he says, “And it goes without saying that labor should try to do these things without causing budget deficits to explode.”

Greenhouse should know better than this. Budget “deficits” are a construction of corporate-conservative governance in which big corporations and the wealthy fail to pay their fair share. Greenhouse asserting that progress on clear air and water might cause budget deficits is a narrative of the Radical Right, who use this strategy of austerity in the service of corporate power and concentrated wealth.

In an era where the federal government and states subsidize the fossil fuel industry to the tune of more than $20 billion dollars per year, Greenhouse should instead be explaining how public goods have been redirected away from workers and their communities toward the private gain of big corporations and the wealthy.

Reform or revolution?

 The question here gets to the heart of racial capitalism. Is it the role of labor to “balance” capital through reforms that Greenhouse lists, such as strengthening the National Labor Relations Act, replacing at-will with “just cause” employment, card-check neutrality, standards boards, and more innovative ideas like having unions administer unemployment benefits?

Or is it labor’s role to build enough power to make structural changes to our economy? Structural in the sense of transferring power (governing power and wealth) from corporations and the rich to people and the public.

McAlevey describes the beating heart of a worker-community movement that can achieve the latter, explaining that the “foundation of the house of power for progressives are unions, complemented by strong, independent, community-based organizations helping to hold unions accountable to broad societal goals.”

And you have a role. McAlevey says that “Neighbors, congregants, parents of kids on the sidelines of every K–12 sports team, book clubs, and knitting circles—every place people gather and regather regularly—need to be engaged in the same way workers engage with each other in their workplaces during a union campaign.”

We all bear the responsibility to build a winning multiracial working class movement in every aspect of our lives. You are being called to greatness.

Greenhouse describes what this means for us: “Clara Lemlich, Walter Reuther, A. Philip Randolph, Cesar Chavez—indeed, all the key figures who built America’s labor movement were fearless fighters. They knew how to organize and how to mobilize. They stood on soapboxes, shouted into bullhorns, and stared down strikebreakers. They carried the fight to fields and factories, to the streets and sweatshops.”

McAlevey brings us home with the clearest message for anyone wondering what to do right now:

“Nothing can rebuild a progressive, ground-up electoral base like a strike-ready union. The Koch brothers know this. The Democrats don’t. The choice is clear: build good unions, undo Taft–Hartley, and enable robust collective bargaining and strikes—which will force an end to austerity as it did in Los Angeles. Otherwise, democracy ends. We don’t need to innovate. From now until the 2020 election day and beyond, we must put the pedal to the metal on the kind of supermajority strikes that began in West Virginia in 2018. Good unions point us in the direction we need to go and produce the solidarity and unity desperately needed to win. We can fight, and we can win.”

This book review essay is being published simultaneously by Organizing Upgrade and Social Policy.



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